As the USFL enters its fourth week, we are seeing some separation between teams. The Birmingham Stallions improved to 3-0 with a 22-13 win over the New Orleans Breakers, staking their claim as the league's best club. The Pittsburgh Maulers are at the bottom of the standings. The league's only winless team fell to 0-3 under head coach Kirby Smart, who has become more famous for cutting a player over pizza than his team's performance.
After a lackluster opening week, the offenses have steadily improved. The average yards per play climbed from 4.6 to 5.1 yards, an increase for the third straight week. Scoring decreased from 20 to 19 points per game, but that slight dip can be attributed to cleaner play across the board. Teams turned over the ball only eight times, cutting into last week's number of 15. The more polished product is a welcomed development for bettors, as there is nothing worse than watching the team you wagered on fumble at the one-yard line. Yes, I'm speaking from experience — thanks to the New Orleans Breakers.
After favorites went 6-2 ATS the first two weeks, the dogs bit back in Week 3, covering three out of the four games. Favorites of 3.5 points or more have been money makers 71.4% of the time (5-2 ATS), and that's exactly where we are looking this weekend. The Birmingham Stallions are small favorites to a Tampa Bay team that has yet to live up to the preseason hype. Here's why I think they are a solid play to cover the number for the fourth consecutive week.
Birmingham Stallions (-3.5) over Tampa Bay Bandits
Birmingham upset New Orleans as 3.5-point underdogs last weekend in a battle of the league's final two unbeaten teams. The Breakers were favorites partly due to thoroughly dominating the Tampa Bay Bandits 34-3 the previous weekend. Can the Stallions have the same level of success? Here's why I am betting on it.
The Bandits were the preseason favorites due to the expectations for QB Jordan Ta'amu, who thrived in the XFL and leveraged his success into a shot with the Kansas City Chiefs. He has not been the same quarterback with Todd Haley in the USFL. Ta'amu isn't seeing the field well, and his indecisiveness has led to four interceptions — second most among starting quarterbacks. He also ranks seventh among starters in QBR and yards per attempt. Last week's 27-26 nail-biter over Houston was the first time Tampa put more than 17 points on the board.
When we put into context the level of defenses Ta'amu has faced in the first three weeks, it's even more concerning that the Bandits are averaging a league-worst 4.1 yards per play. Outside of taking on the USFL's best unit in Week 2, Tampa's other two opponents, Houston and Pittsburgh, rank sixth and seventh in defensive success rate allowed with a 41.3% and 41.9% mark, respectively. The offense improved slightly last week against Houston, a defense that Birmingham lit up for 33 points and 6.1 yards per play in Week 2.
It's clear through the first three weeks that Ta'amu doesn't function well under pressure. Any game where Tampa is facing a defensive front that can generate a disruptive pass rush, there is going to be value on the opponent. Birmingham's seven sacks rank second behind New Orleans, who held Tampa bay to only three points and 64 total passing yards. Birmingham's secondary also allows the third-fewest yards per attempt, and their four interceptions are tied for the league lead. Those are two areas where Ta'amu has struggled.
Over the past two weeks, these two teams played the exact same opponents (New Orleans and Houston), and the results were vastly different. Tampa Bay was outgained in both games by a combined 215 yards while Birmingham was 101 yards in the positive. In looking at each game, the gap between these teams is wider than the 3.5-point spread indicates. The Stallions' defense should create enough pressure to force Ta'amu into bad decisions. That's been something that continues to plague Haley's offense each week, and it will need to be uncharacteristically efficient in order to keep the game competitive Saturday night. It's widely recognized how much turnovers influence which team walks off the field as a winner, making the favorite even more attractive in this spot. We are getting the team that ranks first in turnover margin (Birmingham plus-3) against the team that ranks last (Tampa Bay minus-6). The Stallions are 3-0 ATS with all three wins by at least four points, so laying the small number with Birmingham is a bet for me.
*Stats provided by foxsports, footballdb, and Eric Eager.